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The begum’s burka

March 20, 2012

THERE are those who wear the burka for purely pragmatic reasons: to ward off the catcalls of men loafing at bus stops and in bazaars, to stanch the slick rumour-mongering tongues of neighbours, to better protect the outfit underneath from the grime of city life.

Their needs are simple and can be met easily. The burka is a covering and so must be hardy and resilient, a sort of armour for the woman underneath trying with fabric to put some space between herself and the encroaching public world.

These recipes would be simple if the only women who wore the burka in Pakistan were the practical, hard-nosed urbanites for whom anonymity is essential to making inroads into worlds and spaces previously unknown to their gender.

These would be the female students who have to use public transport to get to and back from a faraway college, recently migrated village women who must now ply the city streets to do the shopping and middle-aged housewives for whom educating the last son or daughter has meant manning a store counter. The encompassing blackness of the heavy fabric reduces not simply the time required to dress and become presentable, it coats need and necessity with respectability.

There are some others who have chosen to wear the burka in recent years, women who are neither of the aspiring middle class wresting education or a job from a wasteland of men and opportunity, or the apologetically poor, interested only in warding off the leers of guards and gardeners.

These are the women of tea parties and coffee parties, newly reincarnated in (post) ‘war on terror Pakistan’ as the newly religious. Like the would-be dieter that happily collects her gear and gets up before the onerous task of actually eating less, the paraphernalia of piety is far more crucial in this game than the actual act.

Among the newly pious, partaking of tea and pastries in drawing rooms, the allure of the burka as a beautiful eccentricity — a newly discovered hobby that elevates morally and distinguishes socially — presents some unique dilemmas. Survival in this social set follows a longstanding set of rules, the first of which is conspicuous consumption.

If bags and shoes and scarves and outfits cannot speak for themselves, or shrouded under burkas, speak at all, they lose both their power and their social purpose. What good is that diamond bracelet under the tight-buttoned cuffs that cannot be rolled up? What value is there to that couture outfit denied a voice under an itchy piece of beige polyester?

All this leads to the vexing conundrum of projecting both wealth and piety at the same time. What to do when women with no vocation other than the propagation of status find themselves addicted to an exploration that contradicts the competitive spending required of the newly wealthy?

One solution could have been a choice, where the dictates of one is chosen over the other. As per this recipe, the diamonds and drawing rooms would be abandoned for the muted greys and browns that would make the begum undistinguishable from the driver’s wife and go off to collect tomatoes and potatoes from the neighbourhood market.

This could have disastrous consequences. Newly covered aunties would look out from the tinted windows of their Toyota Prados to find the same pale blue geometric hijab from that one shop on Karachi’s Tariq Road staring back at them from the heads of women riding on the backs of Honda motorcycles. Everyone knows that Pakistani society cannot tolerate such confusion of class, mistakes that would make the rich look poor.

Some of the problems emanating from the challenge of projecting piety and wealth with a single garment are pre-empted by the steadily growing influx of Khaleeji Swarovski crystal-encrusted abayas and hijabs. Some enterprising pious begums have embraced the task of training tailors to sew matching and contrasting hijabs, artful patterns and designs that they insist can distinguish the discerning wearer from the merely ordinary one motivated by practicalities.

None of these troubles, however, seem to have provoked the question that one would have expected to evolve from the curious marriage of piety and wealth. With wealthy Pakistani women swarming to religious revivalism, redefining burka styles and investing previously dowdy hijabs with the finesse of their distinctively expensive tastes, alarmingly few seem interested in exploring the connections between modesty and poverty.

The revived burka of the rich begum can, it seems, traverse all the boundaries of unfettered spending and showmanship, sport crystals and pearls, cost more than the salaries of maids, chauffeurs and maybe a couple of office clerks combined, and yet magically invest its wearer with instant purity and piety.

Its form, ultimately, is more important than its function. Largely disconnected from the power relations of the society around it, it can absolve the sins of greed and exhibitionism in one easy act of covering. Wrapped in an expensive couture burka or in a Hermès scarf, the society madam of old is no longer simply wealthy but also devout and spiritually laundered.

There can be only one explanation for this lack of focus on the meaning of the begum’s burka: that those who have taken on the task of making religion fashionable for the wealthy have glossed over the ethics of wealth in favour of promoting the garb of piety.

Why not inveigle the reluctant with the choicest angles of revived faith, new avenues for material competition and newly discovered inroads for fashion innovation before bogging them down with the challenges of charity, restraint and honesty? Under this recipe, wearing scarves and designing hijabs bears not just a worldly but a transcendent value, making the begum’s burka the most fashionable route to paradise.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com